Exploration Means Backtracking

I grew up playing Castlevania titles like “Symphony of the Night” and “Circle of the Moon” and was a little disappointed when the recent “Lords of Shadow” played more like God of War than the old Metroidvania style titles I had so much fun with. It was still a pretty good game, just not good in the way I wanted it to be good. So when “Lords of Shadow 2” came out I was pretty sure it was going to be fun… but was it going to be Castlevania style fun?


The answer is: “Almost”. In fact, for a brief moment it felt exactly like a 3D Metroidvania should.


Was that because of all the vampires? No.

How about the gothic architecture? No.

The appearance of some classic enemies? No.

A cool upgrade system? No.


The moment that really screamed “Castlevania” to me was when I found a magic teleporter room that promised to make backtracking easier.


Now you’re probably thinking, “Scott, that’s a really dumb reason to call something a Castlevania game. Teleporter rooms are a tiny little detail and not really that big a part of the series.”


And you’d be right! That’s exactly what I thought to myself at first. Why was my brain so hung up on teleporter rooms?


So I spent some time thinking about it and came to this conclusion: The core spirit of my favorite Castlevania games has always been exploration. They dump you in Dracula’s castle and then expect you to figure out how to reach your goal. Teleporter rooms make exploration easier, so to me they have come to symbolize exploration itself. When I ran across one in Lords of Shadow 2 it was exciting because it seemed to promise that I was going to be going on a classic castle exploration romp.


But, alas, despite that moment of excitement Lords of Shadow 2 never did quite feel like Symphony of the Night. It was still a lot of fun in its own ghoulish way and I’d recommend it to anyone who wants a game that let’s them play as Dracula… but it wasn’t quite the same. And after a little more thought I decided that was because it allowed backtracking, but never required it.


And as the title of this post said, exploration means backtracking. Without backtracking you might be on an adventure, but you aren’t really exploring. Let me explain:


Adventuring is about moving from point A to B by overcoming challenges that get in your way.


Exploration is about starting at point A but having no idea where point B even is.


Adventuring is about unlocking a new upgrade that you need in order to beat the next stage.


Exploration is about unlocking a new upgrade that you need in order to open a door that you found two hours ago and may not even remember exists.


Adventuring is about constantly moving onward to new and exciting areas.


Exploration is about finding out how the new areas are linked to the old.


And that was how Lords of Shadow almost captured the spirit of Symphony of the Night. It had an upgrade system that let you access new areas the more powerful you became. It had hidden bonuses that could only be found by revisiting early areas with later upgrades. But it never quite mastered the art of exploration because the main game itself didn’t expect you to do much exploring. It led you by the nose from one encounter to the next, always pointing out where you should go and what powers you should use. Which is great in an action adventure game, but defeats the purpose of an exploration game.


Anyways… I guess my two points are this:


1) Lords of Shadow 2 was a well done vampire themed action adventure game that I enjoyed quite a bit even though it wasn’t as exploration focused as I had hoped from a Castlevania game.


2) If you want to build an exploration game focus on backtracking. Show the player a locked door or unreachable ledge and then wait two hours before giving him the key or power he needs to go there. Leave it up to the player to figure out where to go next and to remember where his new items and powers might be useful. Reward the player with handy shortcuts linking areas together. Symphony of the Night is a great example of how to to do this in 2D. Dark Souls and Metroid Prime are good examples of doing it in 3D.